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Neil Vallelly

Jan 26, 2022

Futilitarianism

Neoliberalism and the Production of Uselessness

MIT Press 2021

If maximizing utility leads to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, as utilitarianism has always proposed, then why is it that as many of us currently maximize our utility--by working endlessly, undertaking further education and training, relentlessly marketing and selling ourselves--we are met with the steady worsening of collective social and economic conditions? In Futilitarianism: Neoliberalism and the Production of Uselessness (MIT Press, 2021), social and political theorist Neil Vallelly eloquently tells the story of how neoliberalism transformed the relationship between utility maximization and the common good.

Drawing on a vast array of contemporary examples, from self-help literature and marketing jargon to political speeches and governmental responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, Vallelly coins several terms--including the futilitarian condition, homo futilitus, and semio-futility--to demonstrate that in the neoliberal decades, the practice of utility maximization traps us in useless and repetitive behaviors that foreclose the possibility of collective happiness.

This urgent and provocative book chimes with the mood of the time by at once mapping the historical relationship between utilitarianism and capitalism, developing an original framework for understanding neoliberalism, and recounting the lived experience of uselessness in the early twenty-first century. At a time of epoch-defining disasters, from climate emergencies to deadly pandemics, countering the futility of neoliberal existence is essential to building an egalitarian, sustainable, and hopeful future.

Neil Vallelly is a political and social theorist based at the University of Otago, New Zealand. His research has appeared in journals such as Rethinking Marxism, Angelaki, and Poetics Today, and magazines, including New Internationalist and ROAR. In 2022, he will take up a two-year Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at Otago, working on a history of capitalism and migrant detention. An Italian translation of Futilitarianism will be published in March 2022.

Tom Discenna is Professor of Communication at Oakland University whose work examines issues of academic labor and communicative labor more broadly.

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Tom Discenna is Professor of Communication at Oakland University whose work examines issues of academic labor and communicative labor more broadly.
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